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Sunday, May 29, 2011

How to know it is God

I was asked a question some time ago in Bible study and wanted to share what I said. We were talking about obedience to God. Someone asked me, "How do you know when it is God's will and how do you know when it is your own will?"

Answer one: does it conform to Scripture?
Response to answer one: How do you know when it conforms to Scripture and how do you know when it conforms to your own interpretation of Scripture?

In the end, the Bible is not a simple answer book. You cannot just flip to a page and find the answer each and every time. Anyone who reads the NT knows that Jesus has taken OT verses and turned them on their head ("You have heard it said...., but I say to you..."). I do not say that the Bible is not helpful, I merely say that one can find whatever one wants in the Bible. For example, Mark 7:36 ("Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one") or Matthew 8:2 ("See that you say nothing to anyone") (also Luke 8:2& 8:54) make the demand that we remain silent about Jesus. what is someone says, "I am a Mark 7:36 Christian, I do not talk about Jesus"? The world is full of crackpots and cults which (mis)read and (mis)use the Bible.

There are many arguments about the meaning of Scripture. What is clear to one is murky to another. I am dumbstruck by the sacramental theology of many Christians in light of the Bible, yet they look at me like I am nuts when I share my faith. Debates and disagreement on Scripture are as old as the Scripture.

I have spent too many years in study of the Scripture to think that anyone, in isolation, can trust their own personal (idiosyncratic) reading and interpretation of the Word. Not saying reading the Bible is a bad idea. I am saying, reading the Bible and deciding what God's will is based on that (or limiting myelf to people who think like me) is an opening to problems.

So if the Bible alone, as interpreted by me is not enough, how does one know the will of God?

Well, reading how the Church has understood the will of God over time is a helpful starting place. The Church can be wrong and has been wrong and continues to be wrong about all manner of things. Still, it is probably helpful to at least hear what the People of God have said God's will is.

A personal favorite of mine is this. If I decided to do something and I claim it is based on God's will, one question I ask myself is this, "If God were not telling me to do this, would I do it any way?" For example, someone says, "It is God's will I eat this cherry pie." Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. But, if God had remained silent on the issue, would you want to eat the pie? If the answer is yes, then there is always the chance that you are hearing your own voice and thinking it is God.

Be inclined, to be suspicious of your own motivation. Ask yourself first, what do I want? After you know that answer then ask, "What does God want?" If you notice God always seems to want the same thing you do, then you can assume either you are an incredible Saint or it isn't God you are listening to, it is yourself!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

chill of night

I was in Jackson Tn last night, watching a baseball game. The recent cold front which wreaked havoc across the country and unleashed heavy rains here locally had left chilled temperatures in its wake. It was odd feeling slightly chilled, aware of the impending 90+ degree forcast for the next few days. I knew it was going to be hot even as I knew, at that moment, it wasn't hot yet. It was almost chilly.

My phone rang and I assumed it was my wife checking on the score. I did not recognize the number, and a woman's voice asked, "Is this Jeff? Jeff from St. Andrew's?" I identified myself and she said, "I need you to pray." It was a parishioner who is also a friend from high school. I asked if it was her father (he has not been well). No, she said, it was Steve. He did not wake up.

Steve, her former husband, was also her high school boyfriend. Steve was one of my friends, too. We spent much time together in our Senior year. It was two weeks ago that I got a message that Jim had died. Another classmate. Jim and Steve. Monday is the first anniversary of the death of Sheila. She was a parishioner and taught at the elementary school. She taught both my kids and both my kids loved her. So did everyone else. we were the same age. She was a beautiful person, totally. I had the honor of celebrating her funeral service. It was sad because of the loss. There is hope, too. My whole family still misses her terribly.

My dad died twelve years ago this weekend. Memorial Day was when he had always gathered all the grandkids for a weekend of pure decadence. (That's right, donuts for breakfast and endless fun, games and junk food!!!) My two came too late to enjoy that fun, although my daughter did get to have a mini-version once. My son spent one Memorial Day weekend with dad. Dad's last. Son was just shy of two. I still can see him, tapping my dad saying, "grampa, grampa"....

Memorial Day is a time to remember those who gave their lives for our freedoms. My dad was in the navy. I grew up around people who had served. A couple were war veterans. SO many livfes have been handed over in wars. Terrible carnage and loss. So many suffered so much, for us.

Last night, a pleasant night, had a chill. It was a reminder of death. Some people prefer not to think about death. It is hard to ignore when you get a phone call that someone else you graduated with has died.

This weekend we need to be aware that life is a gift. We need to spend ourselves for others. There are many ways to do that. We also need to be greatful for each day. There is no way to know if today is the last day.

Jesus, the resurrected one, the dead-but-now-He-is-alive one, reminds us that the chill is not the whole story. Last night it was chilly, today hot and sunny. Some day death, but in the future LIGHT and SON! Never remember loss without embracing hope of life. As if to sacramentalize that, little baby boy lies within my wife, ready to burst out at any time and declare, "LIFE!"

Friday, May 27, 2011

Transition into Summer (and new life)

Yesterday my son graduated from 8th grade. There were some four hundred kids in his class. The ceremony was very nice and we were spared the indignities of people blowing horns and screaming out names. It is nice on occassion to see good manners. I understand the whole "isn't it funny to yell" thing, but at some point it stops being funny and becomes irritating.

From 6:00pm to 10:00pm they had a party, with about 100 kids present. I was one of the paretn chapreones. I watched them wandering around in the spacious yard. There is an awkward grace in thirteen/fourteen year olds. They are blooming into adults and have an innocent beauty about them. They are also infinitely frustrating, seemingly incapable of conversation much of the time. It is, therefore, good to speak to other parents of teenagers and know that they all experience the same thing. Most of us old timers were also able to recall that we were similar when we were that age. There is something to developmental theory. It is important to let them be kids.

The night before I read the book Peace in a Mad Dog World which I mentioned in my last blog. The author had done a reading recently so I heard some of the highlights then. I also have had several friends rave about it. Warner Davis shared his youth in Beligan Congo. Stories of snakes, killer insects and wars were part of his childhood memories. I look at my own son, who has gone to school, lived in middle America and played baseball. He has had his own share of adventure. Once in second grade his mother called me on the last day of school at 4:30. He was being taken to the emergency room. I looked at my watch and said, "He has only been home for ten mintutes, what could he have done in such a short time?" He had been hit in the head with a baseball bat, opening a gash above his eye. I was amazed by his quiet courage as they cleaned him up and sewed him up in the ER. He has had the struggles with friends and self all children have, but for the most part, not many lions or pythons in his experience.

We live in a Mad Dog world. Things can go haywire fast. I got an e-mail today from a minister who wants me to know that many people have received visions that the Memphis area is about to be hit by a killer earthquake. Dozens of people, it seems, have seen a vision of a huge explosion in the Gulf of Mexico which will trigger a devastating earthquake. Well, we have seen actual tornados wipe out communities to our east and west the last couple of months. As earthquake is not unimaginable here, we live on a major fault line and there have been expectations of "the big one" for decades. I hope the visions are not based on actual events soon to unfold in West Tennessee. I hope the earth stays quiet.

Graduations are emotional for me. I reflect on all that has been and I ponder all that can be. Some of those youngsters will end in tragedy, others will achieve amazing things, most will live lives of mild interest. All are capable of relationship with God. Some will walk with Him, others walk away, most will walk around Him, weaving back and forth as the situation warrants. Perhaps we will have a pleasant future, or maybe the visions will come to pass and our life here will be more similar to the chaos of the Belgian Congo. I do not know. I do know that Jesus is Lord in either case. Preparing for the birth of our second son next week, I am very much pondering transitions. I submit all of our lives to Jesus. I try not to fear all that could go wrong. I try to enjoy the moments given in each day, especially the awkward grace. Summer is here, today, for us in Collierville, TN. School is out. Possible adventures lurk ahead. Some dangers as well. I pray for the Lord to guard, guide and grow us.

Life in constant transitions....

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Presbyterian Problems

My good friend Warner Davis came by to see me yesterday. Warner is the pastor of a local Presbyterian Church. A tall, distinguished man, we met soon after I arrived at St. Andrews. (We were two of the three white people at the local Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial.) Since then we have had many great times together at Rotary and in shared experiences with our churches. Mainly, he has been one of my best friends and supports in the ministry. He is a man of deep faith and gentle spirit. He has written a book (Peace in a Mad Dog World) about his experiences as the son of a missionary in the Belgian Congo which I highly recommend. It would make a riveting movie. Lots of close calls and action and a touching to story of faith.

Warner met with me because the Presbyterian Church has just okayed the ordination of active homosexuals. As I know well, the decisions made at a national level impact the local church. People will leave his church, even as many left my parish. There will be hurt feelings as people with a variety of opinions express them strongly (and many people who would rather not engage in conflict see it emerge all around them). There will be no lack of people who know exactly what needs to be done. Many of them, on opposite sides of the arguments, will prop up their position with a hodge-podge of Scripture quotes and emotion.

My advice to him is point across the street to my parish. For eight years St. Andrews has lived as a minority presence in the Episcopal Church. We have not thrived under the "new thing" but we have been a good church. I told him that the local parish church can continue to do its ministry. As long as we exist the Progressives have to deal with an alternative (Traditional Christian) narrative. As long as we exist, there is a chance to voice a counter opinion. [We can also be challenged in areas where we are wrong.] I have come to greater peace in the last two years. I have friendships with people who believe differently, but love Jesus. I have listened to them and grown as a man and as a Christian. We still disagree on things, but the benefits of staying outweigh the costs. If we left, there would be no ground for discussion. I think that if missionaries to the Belgian Congo can suffer so much to proclaim the faith then I can certainly live in middle class luxury and preach Jesus in this situation. It is not always pleasant, but it isn't supposed to be....

So I pray for the Presbyterian Church. Like us, they are in rapid decline. They are disappearing as a denomination in the USA. I also know that the 'new thing' which their Progressives are pushing will not fill their churches up. The conflicts will only hasten their demise. What I also know is Church history is filled with such stories. Sinners tend to sin, and the church is 100% sinners. No way around it. They sin. We sin. I sin. If we aren't battling over this, it will be that. There is no place to hide, in America, from forces set against the Christian faith. The people outside the church are much more aggressive about it than they are inside.

So my advice to Presbyterians: trust God and be trustworthy, pray, read your Bible, proclaim Jesus, serve the needy, love one another, be greatful, repent. In other words, do what you are supposed to do. God rules. He will take care of everything.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Barry O'Bama and PLO

I am not a political writer. Don't intend to be. I was touched by the election of Barak Obama in part because as a black man he represented something to Black Americans which deeply resonated. There has been great pain in the Black community and their history has not been easy. I live in Memphis TN so the pain of Black Americans is part of the fabric of our city. The other thing about his election which was powerful was his name. Barak Obama is certainly not a name which one would expect to hear in the USA, especially in light of the global conflicts in which we are engaged. There are a large number of people who think he is Muslim, undercover in the most powerful position in the world. I am not one of those. In fact, based on extensive dealings with Liberal Christians I am pretty sure that the President is exactly what he claims to be a Liberal Christian. (I set aside the heresy debate for now)

I am a priest in the Episcopal church, so I have regular contact with liberal Christianity. I atttended the National Convention where Gene Robinson was confirmed. I saw the number of people advocating for Palestinians at our convention. There were several resolutions drafted. I was amazed by many things at convention. The attitude toward the Israel question was one of the most shocking and disturbing. I cannot fathom the affection Episcopalian Progressives harbor for the Palestinians.

A priest of our diocese once did some public speaking on the Middle East. When asked what I thought I responded, "If you do not  have a PhD in Middle Eastern studies you are better off keeping your mouth shut." I still think that is true. But we live in a world where we have to make decisions based on partial understanding all the time. So I am going to open my mouth, with some trepidation.

The last week we have learned our President is Irish. Not much had been made of that prior to his recent trip. It is a bit jarring to have the public narrative suddenly shift. What was more jarring to me was the 'Irish' President's declaration (earlier that week) that Israel needed to give back land to the Palestinians so there can be peace. A return to the 1967 borders, he indicated, was the starting place. Israel's response: those borders are indefensible. I do not see anything in recent history to question that assessment. I think the President is wrong and has put Israel in an even more precarious situation.

My daughter made a statement at dinner last night when this came up. "We will kill America." Her point is theological. What we (US) do to Israel will impact how God treats us. I have heard much debate around that premise. I happen to agree with her. My degree of certitude, however, is moderate. I do not cling to this the way I cling to the resurrection, for example. So, I am disturbed by what is taking place right now. I think Israel is in a very difficult position and I think the President has made it more difficult. I am not as clear what God thinks about all this. Like I said, there are easily a dozen different positions on the question. Christians can, and do, disagree. But it is still an important question.

The theological question, voiced by my daughter, is the one which captures my mind. Is it true that the covenant with Abraham means that the US should support the existance of Israel as a nation? Is it true that Israel the present nation is connected to the Biblical promises to Israel the ancient people? Have the Middle Eastern nations intentionally kept the Palestinians in dire circumstance so that they are an 'excuse' to hate Israel? Is the political unrest in the Middle East a turn toward greater hostility to the Jewish people and the state of Israel? My reading of the Biblical narrative leads me to a pro-Israel position. My limited understanding of the Middle East makes me worry about the future of the tiny state of Israel. We live in a changing world. Nation states rise and fall, appear and disappear. I wonder if Israel will last as a nation.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Real World and Perception

[As some people know, my wife and I are expecting a son on June 5. He is large and the doctor wants to induce a bit early. We are tentatively looking at June 1. My other son is graduating from eighth grade this Thursday. All that to say, life is pretty full right now and it will obviously impact the blogging life at some point. I am not quitting, but I am may less regular in the coming month. I am deeply greatful that anyone cares about my thoughts.]
Last Thursday a screw came loose from the automatic door return on the woman's bathroom door. The heavy mechanism began to pry loose and I had remove it. So now, the door is much easier to open, but it no longer closes on its own. A parishioner came up to me this morning and asked what had happened to the door. "Usually you have to pull it so hard," she explained, "that when I opened it this morning I almost hit myself in the face."

I think this illustrates one of the problems of life. The real world we live in is not the same as the world we "think" we are in. This young lady thought that her world included a heavy bathroom door. It no longer does. The gap between our "belief" (or expectation, or assumption, or whatever term best describes it) and reality is the cause of all number of situations; some pleasant, some unpleasant, all surprises. The world and God are bigger than our minds can fathom.

Last night at prayer group we began to discuss the role of God in healing. There are apparently "natural" spiritual connections to health. Discussions about mind-body are not limited to Christianity. Imagination work impacts physical health. People's expectations impact efficacy (hence the placebo effect). The world is more complex than the simplistic world of the Athiestic Materialist. But Christian faith teaches that the world is more complex than Christians understand, too.

I know that I know a great deal. I also know that the great deal I know is dwarfed by all that I do not know (or understand). I know that I am accurate, or "right" about very much. The problem is there is so much I am "wrong" about. I just do not know what I am wrong about sometimes, so I remain in error.

God has made a world where truth and error co-exist. Error is the result of demonic and human choice. We were given power and abused the power to mess things up. Some day, we are told, He will come to reign. At that point all will be well. Because this promise is sure, we can live in joy and hope today, knowing that SOME DAY it will happen. But we cannot afford to forget that, in the meantime, we must live with humility. We are learning and discovering now. It is helpful to remember that we do not have all the answers. It keeps us on our toes and prepares us for life's surprises.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

More Divine Intervention

It happened again, Thursday. We were studying the Book of Tobit, reading the chapter containing the Marriage Prayer. It is a wonderful model of Jewish prayer in the Bible, and therefore, a handy outline for our own prayer: Praise of God, thanks, reminder of God's promises, request. Lots of praise and thanks. Many couples use it at their weddings (including the wedding I had last Saturday.)

One of the lines, "I do not take her for lust but for noble purpose" led us into a long discussion about the purpose of marriage and the definition of marriage. The question of reproduction came up. I gave a brief outline of the change in understanding of what marriage is. Most were shocked at how we arrived at today's bitter battles over marriage. Once babies are out of the equation, quite simply, anything goes.

One comment that was made: "we live in bad times."

Another conversation was about the end of the world. Some guy has announced that the world will end this weekend, I think it's today. (That is why I wanted to get this last blog out before the Rapture!) I have not really followed the story, I do not believe this man knows anything about God's time table. As I told the class, "I just gave you our summer Bible study schedule, so what do you think I expect to happen?" But it has generated a great deal of interest and apparently many people have made plans for Jesus to return by selling stuff off and buying insurance to take care of their pets.

After Bible study, we celebrate eucharist. The readings are assigned in the lectionary. I never read them ahead. I am always able to come up with a brief reflection after I read/hear them. So when I read "make the most of the present time, we live in an evil age" I immediately thought of the comment above. Then the Gospel talked about, "you do not know the day nor the hour." O my!!! Two readings which were clearly reflective of our conversation. It was like God said, "Here is what I think."

We were reminded that we do live in evil times, but that is the state of the world in all times. We were reminded that the world will end, but no one knows when. Just prepare each day but avoid silly predictions.
We were reminded that so often, our Bible study discussions are connected to the lectionary readings for Mass or Morning/Evening Prayer.
We were reminded that God is at work among us. Intervening in our lives. Touching our conversations. Revealing Himself. Talking to us.
We were reminded, keep your eyes open, your ears open, your heart open: God is among us.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Kids and the Faith

Spent the morning at the Middle School in the refreshment tent for my son's class. Eighth grade has one week left and today was field day, the kind of day that makes kids enjoy school. After several days of really chilly weather it is back near 80 and sunny. Lovely.

When I woke my daughter this morning I said to her, "This is the day the Lord has made." The response, "We will rejoice and be glad in it." I am sure it is from a psalm. The monastic flavored seminary education I received has forever shaped me. This is the sort of thing that was said. It is part of a spiritual discipline. I rarely feel like I  have done a good job raising my kids in the faith. We don't do family bible studies or family retreats. I try not to be overbearing about the faith with them. On the other  hand, I do witness by my behavior. They see me in prayer and they see me in the Bible. My hope is that the example speaks louder than words. I have found them reading the Bible and I know they do Bible study with our church youth group. Questions they ask and statements they make indicate that they are formed by the Christian faith.

Yesterday driving home I heard "The Bible Answer Man" show on the local Christian station. They were talking about some recent surveys which indicate 78% to 90% of Christian kids leave the faith now after they leave High School. It made me sad, as my two will be in that age group in the next few years. Being a parent means letting go. You cannot make your kids believe. You cannot make them love the Lord. I wonder if our generation has done a particularly rotten job of handing on the faith, or if there is more going on? As a youth minister in the 1980's I did far more for kids than any priest ever did for me. I do not know how many of those kids are believers today, but based on Facebook many are. I also think it is harder now, for lots of reasons. The environment seems more toxic. But reading the Bible you get the impression that toxic is the normal environment in every age....

Life is grand, a wonderful gift. I tend to worry and wish I had more enthusiasm. I am greatful for field day and pretty weather. I am glad my daughter is on retreat this weekend. I am glad I get to preach three times. I am glad that our God is kind and merciful. And active among us. I know it is a struggle, but sometimes I just want to sit around feeling glad. SO I will!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

God repents?

Yesterday's post generated some comment to the effect that God controls everything. I am not sure that the Bible states that clearly and consistently. I think that there are philosophical reasons for the claim that God controls all things. These beliefs then impact our reading of Scripture. We have assumptions about God which act as a filter, what confirms our beliefs is highlighted in our reading, what conflicts with it is often overlooked. It is not always conscious. (Sometimes it just happens because that is how humans are.)

One of the more surprising claims of the Bible is that God repented (i.e. changed His mind). It starts early on, too. In Genesis 6:6 ("And the Lord was sorry that He had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved Him to His heart.") the sorry state of humanity leads God to regret/repent making people. Obviously, the language here is remarkably anthropomorphic. God sounds human. His heart is broken. He rethinks the whole creation thing. No where does it state that God planned for things to be so crummy. In fact, it is fair to interpret the story in a way where God is really surprised (and disappointed) by how things turn out.

In Exodus 32 the Israelites, recently delivered from the oppression of Pharaoh and Egypt, are failing to act in a way which expresses gratitude and obedience. God sees the golden calf and the people engaged in "revelry" (another translation: they "amuse" themselves; that can't be good!). God tells Moses that He knows what kind of people Israel is. Basically He says, get out of my way so I can consume them. God is so mad He wants to wipe out His people and replace them with the seed of Moses. In other words, a micro-version of Noah, this time limited to the people of Israel and not the whole world. However, Moses stand against God and offers sage advice. Number one, it would be a PR blunder. The Egyptians would say God took this people out of Egypt with "evil intent" to "wipe them out." He further argues, point two, that God promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that He would make them a great nation and give them the land. In 32:14 we read, "And the Lord changed His mind about the disaster He planned to bring on His people." Once again, it does not say God faked Moses out to see what Moses would do. It said God changed His mind, and apparently Moses' arguments had something to do with it.

The third instance has to do with the kingship of Israel. Saul, a very tall young man, had the crown thrust upon him (1 Sam 10:1) while he looked for lost donkeys (1 Samuel  9). He was a warrior who fought battles for many years, but failed in his role as king. One error followed another and by 15:10 the Lord tells Samuel, "I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not carried out my commands." What follows is the rise of the shepherd boy David, first as Saul's friend, then adversary, and finally David takes the kingdom as his own. It is interesting that David is arguably not much better behaved than Saul, but that is a question for another day.

What is also interesting is that right after God says that He regrets making Saul king, Samuel confronts Saul. Saul, impatient and impetuous, had offered sacrifices and when Samuel arrives he declares God's judgment. Saul has been disobedient, God rejects him as king. Saul confesses his sin and cries out for mercy, but there is no mercy. Saul grabs the robe of Samuel and tears a piece, which Samuel transforms into a parabolic prophecy. "Israel will be torn out of your hand." Then, paradoxically, Samuel makes it clear that the judgment is final. Because, "the Glory of Israel will not recant or change His mind; for He is not a mortal that He should change His mind." (Perhaps Saul might ask, "Well isn't He changing His mind about me?") As if to intensify the paradox, 15:35 repeats that God was sorry He made Saul king.

A similar counter claim is found in Numbers 23:18ff in the oracle of Balaam. "God is not a human being, that He should lie, or a mortal, that He should change His mind." So twice the Bible states clearly that God is not like humans, He does not change His mind. Now, I think that people tend to remember those verses which 'prove' their beliefs so, which verses are in your memory?

In three big events (creation/flood, exodus, first king) there is a stunning declaration that God regrets, repents, changes His mind. Yet we know God is eternal and all knowing, what then are we to think? Well, the greatest minds in Christian history have wrestled with this and written endless tomes about it. (Tomes are books by really smart people). I have never even written a coloring book!  I am not in the top 100 Christian minds of all-time. Not even an honorable mention. But I do think I have an obligation to address such things, mainly because there is a world full of disillusioned former Christians who cannot come to terms with some of the "paradoxes-or-contradictions?" which they experience. I think it does little good to ignore the question.

Does God repent? The Bible says He does. The Bible says He doesn't. Our theological position will dictate how we interpret the verses. I will offer my own stance tomorrow. But for today, I think we do well to humbly listen to the Word of God. To listen with mind, heart and soul. To hear. To pray. To seek understanding. God is revealing something to us in His Word. Let Him speak first. Then cobble together your theology, after you listen....

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Is it God?

Yesterday I wrote about the image of God. In my reflections I referenced Colossians 1:15ff. A couple hours later we gathered for Morning Prayer. This liturgy includes recitation of Psalms and two readings from the Bible. As we sat listening, the reader announced the first reading.......from Colossians! She then proceeded to read the very words I had quoted prior that morning. I felt the surge I always feel when this happens. And it happens frequently. Dozens of times I have been teaching in my bible study and make a reference to a verse, or section of scripture, which I believe is connected to what we are studying, only to have it appear the next day in the readings. It happens regularly, too regularly to be ignored.

Yesterday was  the feast of William Hobart Hare. He was a dedicated missionary to the Sioux and the bishop of South Dakota. He has been dead just over one hundred years. In the Anglican Cycle of Prayer yesterday, we prayed for North and South Dakota. It made me smile. Not long ago we prayed for a parish in Memphis where an early African American leader had served, on the day of his memorial. Connections!

When is a coincidence the work of God? Some people say that there are no coincidences, but they rarely mean to apply this to bad things. [It is always helpful to work out the details a bit when you cast forth your theories.] I can imagine that the Holy Spirit at work within a person can inspire words in such a way that there is later a connection to the readings. In fact, I think it is very probable. Praying for the Dakotas while remembering Hare? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps there are intentional human decisions made to help that happen. In any case it is lovely to remember the past and pray in the present and see them connected.

Last year I was in chapel reading Matthew (at the clergy conference in Mississippi). Someone came in to tell me that a dear parishioner was taken ill and in the hospital. His condition, though serious, did not require my immediate return to Memphis. A couple days later I was home and went to see him. He shared with me his favorite section of Scripture, sort of just blurted it out. It was the very chapter I was reading when I found out about him. The next week the reading came up in the lectionary. At what point do coincidences become mathematically so unlikely that you just say, "God!"? I do not know for sure, but I can say that the trifecta we hit there seemed to be a fair place to start.

I think it best to be 'open eared ' for the Holy Spirit at all times. I am reluctant to ever declare ex cathedra what God is doing. (I also think the same humility requires that one not declare it is 'not God'.) I am not reluctant, however, to hope. Nor is listening and watching for these synchronous events a waste of time. God is speaking in our midst. We need to listen. Why wouldn't He connect our thougths and words with HIS THOUGHTS in HIS WORD?

One other thing, last week my son asked me about the most runs ever given up by one pitcher. He asked several other related questions. My guess was about fourteen or so. Yesterday on the radio I learned that Indians had put up fourteen runs on a relief pitcher, which led the commentator to share the most runs ever by a pitcher was twenty four. What a coincidence! However, if it begins to happen as often as bible verses pop up, then I might think God cares about baseball statistics too!

So I believe there are coincidences. I do not think every time there is one that I need to declare it is a mighty work of God. On the other hand, I do need to be aware. God is talking. We need to be listening. All the time.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Reflections: Image of God

I continue to ponder the clergy conference from last week.

I want to return to one of the theological questions which served as our framework.  "Who am I?" is a central question, or at least one of them. Riding in my car a few days ago I heard "The Logical Song" by Supertramp. It is the ballad of a young man who has lost the magic of life trying to become "sensible, practical, clinical, logical." It is, of course, also the song of a young man who is immature, unwilling to see his responsibilities (a reason why it has lost some of its emotive power now that I am no longer a young man). The emotion resonating in the question: Who am I? is related to many concerns. Do I matter? Am I doing it right? How to related to others?

The answer: "I am the image of God (imago dei)" is foundational. If all human being is a function of God's image, we have an important starting place for discussing the meaning of life and ethics.

In the Old Testament God gave Moses the Ten Words (we call them the Ten Commandments). One of the covenant expectations is that the Jews will make "no graven images." There are few concerns which resonate throughout the OT with as much frequency as the issue of idols. They are considered to be very offensive to God. The Divine cannot be captured and represented in this way. No images are allowed.

Yet, at the beginning of Genesis, we hear that God made humans in His own image and likeness. It was many years before I learned the connection between the anthropology of the bible and the idolatry command. The Lord has created humans in such a way that divinity can be found in humanity. It is stunning.

In the NT (Colossians), we read about Jesus, that "He is the image of the Invisible GOD, the first born of all creation." Our humanity, it seems, is a reflection of His perfect humanity. He is the model by which we understand ourselves. So what is He an image of? The Father. And within God, secretly and far outside of our intellectual grasp, God is Father, Son and Spirit. The expression, God is love, is expressed in the mutual love of three persons in one nature. It is also the source of the love poured out into creation and the world.

"God is love" First John says. But there are many other, much more frequent descriptors. God is holy. God is just. God is merciful. The problem I see with "God is love" is the word love. Since the 1960's love has been stripped of its meaning, hollowed out and diminished. Since Love Story's famous line, "Love mean never having to say you're sorry," there is little connection to the Christian understanding of the word.

We are the image of holiness ("Be holy for I am holy" appears as a demand in both testaments). I think holiness is the core identity of God. God is holy. We need to understand love in the context of holiness. It will save us from much of the silliness in the church today.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

WTn GLBT 2: Can We Agree?

My last post mentioned a presentation by two priests to our clergy group about the GLBT Task Force and some of its findings. There had been a survey distributed amongst several groups in our diocese, one group was clergy and church staff. Several questions focused on counseling GLBT folk. The survey said roughly one-third to one-fourth had done so and were willing to do so. This was read as rejection of the people in the LGBT group by this task force. We were told that this was painful.  We were told that there were going to be resources made available to us to better prepare us to provide counsel.

When there was time for open discussion, the first comment offered an apologia for homosexual love. It was the "born that way, not a choice" argument coupled with the "loving God" argument. The second comment was the "gay people get beat over the head with the bible" observation. The former irritates me because I have addressed it logically several times. It is a fallacy to argue ethics based on inborn tendencies. The latter observation is no doubt true (mean, self righteous Christians do exist and Scripture is abused) but it is also too simplistic and ignores that a gentle use of Scripture still communicates a hard message to the GLBT community.

The third comment was mine. I intended to be analytical. I spoke calmly. My concern was around the issue of counseling and materials. So I pointed out that we needed some sort of comparative data about counseling. "How much counseling do we do period?" I asked. The assumption is that we are reluctant to counsel with GLBT folks, my genuine question is, are we reluctant to counsel everyone? Then I added that my son had asked why we were focused on GLBT issues? I explained that I told him that in our diocese we were concerned because young GLBT people were often bullied. I went on to say that my son's response to me was , "Dad, everyone is bullied and picked on." In light of that I asked, "What about fat people? There are many more people with weight problems than there are GLBT folks in our church. They are picked on and abused. They have serious problems coming from prejudice and unkindness. For ten years we have talked about GLBT issues incessantly but never a word about the pastoral needs of any number of groups, in our church, who are also human beings in pain." I concluded that we needed to look into broader questions about counseling period. I also mentioned that I am an MSSW and have done much counseling, including multiple members of the GLBT community and their families.

I was told that my argument was a red herring. I responded I was not arguing. I stated that if tomorrow I changed my mind and became the GLBT community's greatest advocate, I would still want to be thorough and accurate in the use of data.

The next day another priest asked me, "Do you ever feel like people do not listen to what you say?" She went on to complement me for staying calm in the face on this phenomena and for not giving up.

I appreciate her kindness greatly. I also appreciate her insight. There is no doubt that many years of debate, much of it passionate, has created some barriers to communication between the two sides of this debate. There is also no doubt that we perceive each other through a lense. There is a willingness to shut down discussion based on assumptions. I do not think we can agree. I also think it is a political discussion (power) not theological (truth) or pastoral (how do we care for). The Progressives wanted to change things so the use of political power inside the church is how they did it. Most of those who were unconvinced by the Progressive arguments (which are terribly weak and logically flawed, even if emotionally appealing and on the surface much nicer), well, most of those who disagreed are gone. They left the Episcopal Church and joined other churches or created a new group within the Anglican framework. The remnant can be effectively isolated, ignored and misrepresented with ease.

But there is hope. Some people recognize that the adherents of the traditional faith have value. Several priests told me I had asked important questions and had tossed no red herring. Another priest came to me later and said that I had opened his eyes to the real challenges and  needs of people who struggle with their weight. And even the priest who had dismissed what I said had gone on to recognize that there had been reconciliation and grace in conversations I had had with the GLBT community after the last Diocesan Convention.

We cannot agree. I believe they are wrong, they think I am. We can, however, be fair. We can be empathetic and try to understand each other. We can be agents of reconciliation. We can stop being silly and dismissing each other. As a vocal member of a small minority, it is easier for me to be humble and kind. I have no power. But in weakness I can witness to Truth in love. How can they hear if no one speaks in their midst? I am also able to unmask the Progressive assumption that they are "open, loving, propopents of diversity." As long as I am around they are constantly reminded that they also have prejudices, they are also oppressive, they are also self righteous,,,, in other words, they are also just like the Traditionalist whom they do not like.

I see no other way. Witness requires presence.  Faithful witness must also listen. Authentic dialgoue means listening and speaking. I believe God is in our midst. I believe our struggles living together are the context where we become more fully the Image of God and undergo theosis and become godly. I believe, so I do not quit. I believe, so I hope. Even if we never will agree on this. Ever.

Friday, May 13, 2011


Yesterday, I shared that we had been gone for three days at a clergy conference. The bishop who lead the conference was quite good. He looked at three questions: Who am I? How do I be/become who I am? What is my goal/end?

The answers came from the ancient Eastern Orthodox church. (I liked it!) The short and simple summary is: I am the image of God. I become my true self through theosis (infilling of Holy Spirit, godliness, sancitification). My goal is living into the Kingdom of God. In contrast, he shared, recent research indicates that the contemporary church has not done a very good job of teaching the Christian faith to our young people. Very few are serious about Jesus. We have, instead, according to the book Almost Christian by Kenda Creasy Dean, produced a generation which is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. [A handy review of her work here: ] He was clear that this approach to God (do good to feel good, God should always make me feel good) was problematic. I agreed with the good bishop.

The question of identity (ID in my title) is cetntral to young people, but also for us older folks. If we are the image of God then we must understand Who God is to understand who we are called to be. In Jesus we discover what it means to be truly human. In Him we find our identity. I am a priest in West Tennessee (WTn in title). Humans live and grow in particular times and places. I am here and now. Others live in times or space much different from mine, which affects who they are. The issue of diversity was one which the bishop mentioned many times. (Diversity is, of course, a huge issue in the Episcopal Church, it is something we hear about quite a bit.) Even if I am not totally on board with the 'diversity crowd' I am aware that they help me to see that there is a dangerous temptation to think that everyone should be in "my image and likeness" rather than God's. Christian community requires that we live with and love people who are different from us. The world is full of different kinds of people.

The effort to face diversity has been the source of great conflict in the Episcopal Church, in particular around the issue of Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual and Trans-Gendered people. (GLBT in title) WTn has made a decision to focus more on care for the people in the GLBT group. Discussions and debates about this have ended. (My group lost) We are moving into a new (Progressive) place. A presentation was made to the clergy by priests on the GLBT task force. One presenter prefaced his remarks by sharing the research of a psychologist. The young man, according to the priest telling us the story, is brilliant and in his study had determined that GLBT folks who live in US states which are unfriendly to them exhibit higher incidence of mental illness. However, he pointed out, so do all the other people, too. On the other hand, GLBT folks living in gay friendly states have better mental health, and so does everyone else. The conclusion was pretty evident: the Traditional understanding of homosexuality (etc.) produces mental ill health.

I cannot debate those findings. I would like to know more about the definitions and the criteria. Even so, I have not read the study nor am I a brilliant psychologist or researcher. But yesterday something occured to me. The presentation on GLBT began with a focus on the 'therapeutic' rather than the theological. I did not catch it for almost two days (who says reflection is not helpful?). Driving in my car I suddenly realized that the very thing we were told that we do, but should stop doing (focus on therapeutic) is what we did and kept doing!

I do not think that obeying God should create mental illness. I will, however, say that living in a fallen world, where the values are confused and often inverted, is a treacherous thing. I will also say that, in theory, it is not inconceivable that making people feel better about sin (whatever sin it is) can no doubt reduce the level of stress that people feel and contribute to "mental health". If research found that there is less "mental illness" in States where lying, stealing or fornicating is considered acceptable and supported, that would not lead me to change my understanding about those things either (even though some people are born with propensities in each of those areas as well).

I have read some Orthodox writings where the image and likeness of God are understood in Greek rather than Hebrew ways. The Jew sees the words as a repetition and intensification of the same idea. Some Church Fathers saw 'image' as a given (my identity and souce of my dignity) and 'likeness' as a task (the hard work of becoming godly). Image is a gift, a grace; likeness is a work, a holy endeavor of discipline and discipleship. All persons are the image of God. We should treat all humans with dignity. But the image of God has suffered the effects of our sins and choices. As we are more or less the 'likeness of God' we enhance or diminish that image. The church does well to keep that in mind, when dealing with all people, even GLBT folks. The church does well to keep in mind that spiritual health is important, just as important as mental or physical health. The work of godliness entail struggle, pain and suffering. It includes the ugly moment of acknowledging that my desires are twisted and my behaviors are imperfect. Not an easy task in WTn, not an easy task anywhere!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Clergy Conference: LOST!

I spent the last three days in the Gray's Center near Jackson, Mississippi at our annual clergy conference. On Tuesday afternoon during free time I decided to take a break from reading and go outside and move for a bit (it was a muggy, ninetey degrees so I dare not say I went for fresh air!). Last year the trail took me about 45 minutes to walk. I figured I had plenty of time to get back, call my wife, shower and read a bit more.

The first twenty five minutes were uneventful as I carefully followed the blue markers of the outer trail. Then the path began to be more overgrown and I even had to climb through a fallen tree. More and more stickers invaded my shoes and bites and scratches began to accumulate on my lower legs. Mud holes gave way to much larger puddles; the slick mud was like ice. Twice I slipped and almost fell. My white shoes were caked in mud. I was not enjoying the walk, and I kept aware of the location of the sun and timed the distance between each blue marker. Roughly every thirty to sixty seconds I crossed one. They were numbered (out of fifty five) so I slowly watched the numbers grow through the twenties, and finally I got to thirty one. I figured another ten minutes or so and I would be back. At that point there was an arrow pointing straight up in the air.  To my right the path seemed to be better kept up and more traveled. I relaxed as I finally felt I could make better time.

After a few minutes the path was obviously a dirt road with numerous tire tracks. There were no blue markers. I kept walking, hoping it would break through to the facility at any moment. Finally I admitted to myself this was not a path, so I hurried back to where I had made the turn. Or so I thought. For the next hour I wandered first one dirt road, then another. I was obviously on a system of dirt roads used to take care of the electic lines on the poles which stretched endlessly above me and into the distance... My initial concern about spending too much time gave way to a more serious concern. I had no idea where I was and the more I walked the more confused I got. The prospect of spending the night as a mosquito buffet crossed my mind. More serious possibilities also whispered their presence.

I turned to prayer. I kept walking and trying not to worry. The problem is I was in an isolated area where one could literally walk ten miles and never see anyone. I was not sure how easy it would be to find me if I could not find my way back. I never was able to return to the marked path of the trail.

Instead,  I found a gate and came out on a road. I chased down a man on a tractor, told  him I was lost, and he instructed me that I could take the road "that way" (he pointed) and "it was about a mile." Sweaty and tired, I walked quickly down the road for another twenty minutes. Upon arrival, I entered the dining room, fifteen minutes late for supper, my forty five minute jaunt having blossomed into a two hour adventure. I admitted my folly and was soundly celebrated (and mocked) at the meeting which followed.

The experience was similar to life in the church. Scripture and Tradition provide a marked path. God has provided us with revelation of His will. Sometimes we are led astray. On our own, following our own intuitions, we wander. Sometimes we are led home by the Spirit. Other times we perish.

The Lord Jesus once said that we should take the narrow way. He warned that the road of destruction is wide and many take it. I had done just that. I left a walkers path and enterred a dirt road and I did not pay attention to the lack of blue markers. I just decided that it must  be okay, even when it wasn't. Once I had gone far enough I lost a sense of where I was. I tried to return, but it looked different and one wrong turn was compounded by another. Errors are covered over by "good intentions" with no effect. While I was not harmed nor was my life threatened, I was in a position where I could have ended up that way. I am well aware that my happy ending could have different.

We struggle, as church, to make sense of the teachings of Jesus. Liberals err in their direction, but conservatives do the same in our own way. Moderates moderately distort, less radical but no less wrong than the extremists to left and right. Even those who do get it right most of the time only get it right most of the time. It is the some of the time that they get it wrong that creates the problems.

The thing about wrong turns is sometimes you don't get back to the path. I ended up over two miles from where I was supposed to be. Two miles off on foot is a long way. I would never have believed I was that far off until I actually saw it. It is terrifying to think about how far off we (you and I) are from the path of Christ. It is well marked, but sometimes we stop paying attention. Thankfully God heard my prayer (Be a light upon my path and show me Your way. Lead me, O Lord). The road which led me out seemed to change somehow. In the place where I expected a fork there was none. I am befuddled by that and felt forced to continue on the road I was on, that is where I saw the gate, and beyond that the blacktop. Not saying a miracle happened with the topography, just that something happened with my perception of it which got me to where I needed to be.

I am greatful for that blessing, more greatful for God's mercy in bringing me back to the righ path when I stray. I plan to share the experiences at our conference the next few days. I think we as church have to come to grips with how far off the path we have wandered. I hope such reflections might aid others in their journey. But above all it is vital to remember that God saves!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Men and Boys Bonding

Another weekend of baseball. I suffered with my son as his error allowed the lead off  runner to reach third base. A moment later another hit sealed their fate as they lost 2-1 in extra innings against the best team in West Tennessee.

He was very upset. He told me, "I feel like I let my team down." "I know, " I kept repeating, "I know it hurts." As we drove on in the night I mentioned to him that it was too bad that he had gotten the big hit which tied the score earlier in the game. "If you had not knocked in that run, you would not have been in the position to make the error." I think as he pondered that he felt better. Ironically, he had hit the ball to the wall in his last at bat. He was about ten feet from the game winning home run. So close, and yet so far. I imagined him running the bases and the wild celebration which could have been.

Isn't that life? Moment to moment we slide between hero and goat. An inch here or an inch there and we are the champions, or the runner up. It is an important lesson to learn. You cannot ever think that this moment is set in stone. There is always the next pitch, the next at bat...

I sometimes worry about the time we spend with competitive baseball. It can be five games, and it can eat up an entire weekend. If one ponders the purpose of life it is hard to see how that much time for baseball is a good idea.  Yet, I have a memory from my own youth which makes me see value. Mr. Pete Bosert was our coach. I have only good memories of him. Another man helped the team, one of the dads. He was a huge man, but I do not remember his name. One game, it was hot, and they were preparing me to go bat with the game on the line. In the dugout the big man was talking to me. I do not remember what he said, probably something about staying calm. What I do remember is the wet towel he had put on my head and the way he was holding my head in his big hands as he calmly talked to me. It was comforting. It was one of the few settings where a man could appropriately be touching a young boy. It made an impact because I remember it to this day.

Men and boys do not often engage in affection. Our culture sexualizes so much, and Lord knows that the sexual freedom movement has only made it more confusing. Even so, there are times when I think it would be helpful to make more connections. I make an effort to joke with the boys on my sons team. I also try to say a word of comfort or encouragement. Every game someone is upset with a tough loss or a poor performance. Three weeks ago I took aside one fellow who has had an especially tough season. I talked to him about relaxing and enjoying the game. I talked to him about the pressures he felt. Typical of boys this age, he nodded alot and said 'yes sir' several times. Afterwards I wondered if what I said made any difference. This weekend he came out of his funk. Had several hits. He made a great catch. After the game he said, "Did you see that catch, Mr. Jeff? That was for you."
At that moment the long weekend was all worth it.

I think boys need relationships with men. For many of us, ball fields are the place where that is possible. I understand all the reasons for personal space and I recognize the need to respect distance. But I also think it is important for boys to bond with men. It is important for us to build them up and give them hope. There are many times and places to do that, but in my experience few better than a ball park.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mother's Day

My mom is dead. She died in slow motion between December 20, 1993 and March 20 in 1994. A week and a half after that first anniversary of her death my daughter was born, making my wife a new mom. I therefore only had to miss one Mother's Day celebration.

Mother's Day can be a tough memorial. Many people do not have a good relationship with their mothers. It can be a time of guilt or tension. I know several woman who are not mothers, but desperately wish they were. It is the kind of day which makes them withdraw because it is like an open wound. People like me are able to love a mother-in-law or celebrate with a wife/mother of my children, but we won't be able to say, "I love you" to the lady who gave us birth.

In our church service we will take a moment to bless all the mothers in the room. Comically, there will always be some man who, not paying attention, will simply stand up at that time to receive the blessing with them. Blessing mothers is one of the things a priest can do. Sometimes I wonder what exactly takes place when I bless someone. What is it that God does? I hope it is something good. Perhaps we will find out someday. At least it is a moment for us to acknowledge the incredible sacrifice women make in order to bring life into the world.

With the arrival of our son only a few weeks away, I ponder, once more, the most amazing bodies of woman. Watching that baby wiggling around inside of my wife is truly a miracle. I sometimes wonder about the planning meeting in heaven before creation took place. Whose idea was pregnancy and birth? What other options were considered and then discarded? I do not know, but I do know that God made something beautiful when He made birth. There certainly is a glow about a woman heavy with child.

There is sacrifice as well. There is a physical and mental toll carrying a child to term. I preach on struggle and suffering (First Peter cahpter one) tonight and tomorrow. I rarely shy away from talking about the reality of the pain. But Peter indicates that the pain is not for naught. Being a mom may be the hardest thing in the world to do well. It certainly is a burden which can break a woman's heart. The difficulties, though, are not the last word. God redeems each tear. God blesses each mom. There is a reason why the church is called a mother. There is a reason why mothering is held up as the highest human occupation.

Today we bless the mothers and thank them. We also remember those who want to but can't, those who are sad or in pain this day. Like all beautiful days, it can also sharpen the wounding blade of reality. But it is well to remember we are reborn to HOPE and the day will come when every tear is wiped away and every wound is healed. The Mother Heart of the Father God will be revealed. The love of God will make all things well. The Father will bless each human mother who faithfully spent herself. It will  be a celebration where no one present feels left out and no one will have ambivalent feelings. It will be in the Kingdom of Heaven. Today may your celebration of Mother's Day be a foretaste of that heavenly banquet!

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Flood, The Blood!

Memphis Tennessee sits on a bluff next to the Mississippi River. Across the river, in Arkansas, it is flatter. Over the years it has been a regular fact of life that the river swells and the other side is under water as the Mississippi reaches beyond its normal banks and extends into the low lying areas of our sister state. Today, we are approaching a river height not seen since 1937. Projections say we will exceed that historic flood. Now our side is being impacted.

Already we are seeing some areas under water. The news ticker is projecting the number of homes (700+) and businesses and churches which are going to end up under water. Numerous roads, familiar to locals, are closed due to flooding. I hear the interstate to Little Rock is closed for miles and miles.

We sit and wait the coming destruction. Folks who deal with such things are scurrying about trying to prepare to limit the effects. Others no doubt pray to be spared. There is just a fact of too much water colliding with other facts, like some places are low enough that the water will swallow them.

There is another approaching flood, only in reverse. The blood donation base is made up of people who are now in their 60's and above. While the need is not diminishing, the donors are. Each year people who want to give no longer can give because of medical issues or mortality. I am scheduled to give blood today. I do it because there is no alternative to human donors doing that. When September 11 happened, the blood bank was swamped by donors. Most of them were one time donors. We Americans like a crisis. Sadly, the crisis of need continues, it is just the giving that doesn't keep up. The daily crisis of people needing blood for surgery or due to an injury isn't exciting enough to stimulate the masses. If you can give you should give. If you can't give you should talk about it so others know of the need. It is literally a way to save someone's life. Literally. That is so cool to think about. And it is something you can do again and again. Saving lives.

There are lots of times when all the different theological positions and beliefs bombard me into dazed confusion. I am, however, absolutely sure about this. Jesus gave His blood for us. He told us to do the same in memory of Him (sacramentally, figuratively and literally). A Christian can be very certain that Jesus is well pleased when we give blood. Jesus is into saving lives, He is a Savior after all. He is also into His disciples following His example. So do it for Jesus. Give!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Big World, Little World

I began blogging the end of September. At the time I thought I was doing my duty as a priest. About 1,000 people are at church here a month so my hope was that I could reach another 1,000 a month by blogging. Soon after I read an article which said 'blogging is dead' and the young folks are tweeting now! Ha! I really laughed as I saw that I was not only behind the curve but off the line completely! Yet, the consistent feedback from people is that it is worth it. Blogging may be dead but there are plenty of folks do not know it.

I bring this up because it is a reminder that "church" or "people of God" is a multi-layered concept. Many times the things I write come up in conversation with parishioners. Much of my audience is people I know and serve here. Yesterday, for example, a lady from the church reflected on the struggle with trust in an age when you never know when you are hearing the truth. She pointed out that it does impact her reading of Scripture and her relationship with the church. She said what I had written yesterday resonated. On the other hand, last week I got a birthday greeting from a man who had been in my youth group in the mid-80's. I think I have seen him once or twice since. He told me he reads regularly. Former parishioners or students, dearest friends from my Ascension days, as well, find their way to these postings. It really is connections with people across time and from many periods of my life.

I found out last week that the audience includes people from Russia, India, Ukraine and Iran. Over ten foreign nations have had three or more readers this week. I think of St. Paul writing his hand delivered letters. I think of how long it took his words to reach Corinth or Rome. It is mindboggling that people I do not know are reading what I write thousands of miles away, perhaps within an hour or two. Of course, the readership of Paul stretches around the globe and  has extended through two thousand years. I am no Paul. But all of us do have access to an audience which is much larger than we can imagine.

Witness to Jesus takes place all the time. We either do it well or we do it poorly. If we neglect to say His name we, in a sense, deny Him. If we say His name and live counter to His example, we undermine our value as proclaimers of Good News. Too often we fail to take seriously the opportunity we have. Perhaps the reader from the Ukraine is searching for God? Maybe in Iran someone is wondering about the Christ. What if this is their venue to encounter Him? Obviously, (I repeat, OBVIOUSLY) the Holy Spirit is the source of insight and conversion. I have no illusions that each day behind this keyboard the fate of the world hangs in the balance. On the other hand, I also know that someone may read something here, which leads them to do something there, which is connected to someone else doing something else somewhere else, and that might be important. All of us have no idea the scope of our reach or the impact we make. God uses us and He uses us in ways which we do not know or understand.

Part of the faith is trusting that God's plan is salvation for the world. Part of our faith is trusting that the Heart of God is set on the Good for all people. Part of the faith is trusting that He trusts us. Part of the faith is hanging on to the hope that in the sometimes jumbled mess of life the Kingdom of God lies hidden in our midst. The ministry of Jesus has been handed on to us. We can sit around questioning the meaning of life and pondering if anything matters. We can argue philosophy or medicate our pain through various distractions. Or we can choose to respond to the call from Gallilee, "Come follow Me!"

Today I will encounter a handful of people from around the world by blogging. I will make connections with people who used to be my constant companions, but are now living far away through writing. Today I will also connect with people from all over whom I have never met by blogging. Most of all, I will encounter people who live in Collierville and Memphis, face to face. Each meeting is sacred. Each connection is part of being church. Each time I have a chance to glorify God and serve Jesus. The same is true for each of us. Every day.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Osama, Obama and Trust

The news that Osama bin Laden is dead has now begun to morph. We are seeing stories which question the truth of the story. Some doubt he is dead and claim it is made up. Others question details of the event. Was a wife used as a human shield? Was the body disposed of at sea? Why did the helicopter go down? What really happened?

I came of age during Watergate. I watched my president resign in disgrace. News stories of cover ups dominated my high school years. I mention that because I think it has forever changed me in subtle ways. I think I forget about the impact it has had on me. I forget about the way it has shaped the history and literature of my entire life. I have grown up in a cynical, doubting world where there is good reason to think that liars are predominant.

I expect that there are things which the government does not want our enemies to know, so I assume there are things that they will not tell us. I have no reason to believe we are getting the complete story, nor do I think we are getting a completely true story. Probably there are things we should not know. The problem with fabrication, though, is one lie leads to another. At some point, creating distortions and falsehoods becomes a way of life. As my dad once said about a little boy "he lied so much that he would even lie when telling the truth was to his advantage."  For as long as I can remember we have had media twisted and spun by politicians. It is the way they are. Most all of them. It is the nature of their business. The media is also dishonest. They are motivated to tell ugly stories which will gain an audience. Their own political slant colors coverage.

What happens when someone cannot trust? What happens when, over and over again, people find out that the official story is 'historical ficiton' and that the people whom we call leaders are often times intentionally misleading us? In some cases for good reason (national security) but more often for personal gain or to protect their power?

The theological term is "the Fall." It means that we live in a world which is deeply affected by sin. We are victims of that as well as perpetrators. It is disheartening to never know, with confidence, that we are being told the truth or being lied to. It is disheartening to know that people who are master manipulators of media create images to fool us. It is sad to think that every word out of this (and every) president's mouth is being filtered by image consultants and social scientists analyzing the political benefit of saying 'this' rather than 'that.'

In church circles we say, "saved by faith." I think there is a sense in which finding Someone who is trustworthy is an experience of salvation. Probably one reason for the loss of faith in God in our age is the parallel loss of faith in most institutions and most people. There is corruption in our churches, too. Scandals of all sorts are covered up. 

Trust is a challenge to us all, perhaps more difficult now than in other times or places. Or maybe not. Maybe it has always been this way. Maybe that is why faith is salvific. Perhaps, since Adam turned on Eve after the Fall, we have always lived in a world where distrust and lies have dominated. At any rate, don't you hunger for deliverance from a world of violence and dishonesty? Don't you wish things were better? Where does that dissatisfaction arrive from? Why are we humans able to see how things are and discern they could be, should be, better? I think that is the finger print of God on creation. There is hope in the midst of all this. There is Truth in the midst of lies. There is faith in the midst of doubt. There is a resurrected Savior, Jesus, in the midst of sin and death.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Low Sunday

My plan was to write about this yesterday. Plans change, especially in the face of the big news about Osama bin Laden. However, his death is a good context to probe the question of our faith.

I have been a priest in the Episcopal church since March of 1999. I was introduced to a new word by Epsicopalians, "low Sunday" years ago. Low Sunday is the Sunday after Easter. While it is not on the calendar, it is engraved in the heart of many people. It is a long standing tradition that you simply blow off the Sunday after Easter.

This year we had some 450 attend Easter services. This weekend we probably saw less than 200. That makes me sick. Easter is a fifty day celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It ends on Pentecost. We Christians struggle to make it last for a week.

Osama bin Laden knows about commitment. He lived his version of the Islamic faith pretty intensely. He did not do good things, but he was focused. We Christians, who reject the beliefs of Islam, seem reluctant to live our faith robustly. Is it any wonder that we are unable to make a bigger impact in the world?

Church attendance is not the measure of faith. However, skipping Sunday services is rarely done for reasons of faith, hope and love. The NT book of Hebrews says that we should not absent ourselves from the community gathering. Nowhere is non-attendance held up as a goal. I think there is a clear correlation between indifference to worship and indifference to the demands of the faith.

Over the years I have watched many members of my parish drift away. Skipping Sunday is the most effective way to disengage. Once "too busy," "too tired," or "not today" become sufficient reason to miss church, one can assume that there are any number of reasons sufficient to cut out all sorts of Christian disciplines.

If Christians believe that a weak and indifferent faith is sufficient to combat the radical Islam and aggressive secularism which we face, then Christians do not have long for the world. If we cannot get up to celebrate resurrection, what could possibly motivate us? If we are not excited about the Lordship of Jesus manifested among us, what could ever wake us up?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden dead

Around ten o'clock last night I was ending my day. I had been to the funeral home across town and then grocery shopped. I came home and made lunches for the kids and finished up laundry. I had been upstairs to get the kids to bed. Just before I went to sleep, I turned on the news to see if "anythng had happened." I saw Heraldo, grinning ear to ear, as he joyously declared that bin Laden was dead. Wow!

A few minutes later my son came downstairs to tell me he had gotten texts about the death. He looked at me and asked, "Is that good?" My son has been a conscience tweaker since he was a toddler. He has always wanted to know "is he a good guy? is he a bad guy?" when we watch movies or analyze news stories. Is it good that Osama is dead? I told him 'yes' but I did not find myself dancing and celebrating. I am not sure why.

I grew up in a military family. My dad is a retired sailor.  His dad and brothers also were sailors. As such, we have always had a special affection for the Seals. Dad met some of them in the 1960's during Viet Nam and he came home with great stories. I read the book on the founder of the Seal team six. I blogged about a wedding I did over Christmas with a young man who is a Seal (and how excited I was). I have never been averse to military stories or movies. I played army as a child all the time. I also have a sense of right and wrong. I believe there is evil and I believe we need to take a stand. I have found myself in positions where I did just that. So why no jubilation over the death of the man responsible for thousands of deaths and untold suffering for millions due to the economic and social repurcussions of his acts? He lit a fuse which led to ten years of war. He produced incredible evil in our world.

I guess the issue is Jesus. I do not think Jesus would be jumping up and down cheering. Maybe He would, but I do not think so. I hear Jesus say, "love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you." I hear Jesus on the cross, tortured and dying, cry out, "Father forgive them..." Jesus haunts me at times like this.

Does this mean that I think the US should tell Osama bin Laden all is forgiven? No, I am not that silly or naive. I have no doubt that pursuing him for ten years prevented other heinous terrorist acts. I think the man who sqeezed off two rounds into the brain that plotted so much evil did the world a favor. I think it is a just act and a righteous kill.

I also think it is sad. If bin Laden had used his resources to alleviate suffering what could he have accomplished? If he had trained young men to creat jobs and improve the plight of poor Muslims in the middle east what wonders would his millions have created? His death is a terrible waste because his life is a terrible waste. Such waste is a tragedy.

As I heard of his death I found myself drawn back into a painful place, flashbacks to those September days when the world seemed turned upside down and our nation suffered an open wound. I thought of thousands dead, tens of thousands who mourned their loss, and tens of millions who shared their pain. The Seal team got the perpetrator, but the dead are still dead and the maimed still maimed. Maybe today will bring healing to some, if so, God bless them. I do not feel healed.

I wonder what the days ahead will hold. Will some terrorist's act of revenge take more lives? Will more buildings blow up, more men, women and children be slaughtered? Will new cities be in shock?

Or will the terrorists be more reluctant to act? Will this truly be a success which defangs the killers and makes them impotent? Will the world become a bit safer and more humane?

Yesterday I wrote that we need a savior. I believe that today as much as then. Osama bin Laden did much evil. He believed things which I think are untrue. He advocated things which are wrong. I guess some people assume he is in Hell. He died thinking he was headed to heaven (or so we are led to believe). He thought he was pleasing to his god and doing holy acts.

Where is he? He is in God's hands. My belief is he is being educated. The Lord Jesus is teaching him the pain he caused. Jesus is allowing him to feel every life taken and its repurcussions (physical, spiritual, emotional). It is called judgment. It is called truth. Jesus is allowing him to feel all the pain he caused, to experience all the lives he destroyed and disrupted. Jesus is pouring each event into bin Laden and saying "reap what you sow." The prospect is horrifying to me. Even if he is an evil man, I shudder to think of the responsibility he bears. I shudder, in part, because it brings to mind my own responsibility for suffering in the world. Can I delight in justice for others and cry out for mercy for myself?

Is it good that they killed him? Yes, the world is a better place without him. Yet, there may be others poised to rise up and take his place. Maybe there will be more evil come of this. Who can know before hand? Even so, it was the right thing to do, I believe. But what haunts me is what am I answerable for? What has me blindness and selfishness led me to do? How have I misunderstood God and done wrong things in His name? Certainly not on the scale of bin Laden, but is evil on any scale okay?

Easter is a time to reflect on Jesus' death on the cross for our sins and His resurrection. The successful mission of these navy seals has given me a reason to ponder more deeply on mortality, evil and justice. I pray for mercy from God for all of us. No one is really innocent, even if some are much more guilty. I dare not minimize the evil Osama has done, but I dare not ignore my own sin, either. I do know this, I can and will pray today, "Maranatha. Come Lord Jesus. Come Lord and rescue a world hungry for healing and new life!"

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Respect and empathy

Last night our game ended with a conundrum. The umpires gathered to discuss what needed to take place. We had lost, but there was reason to believe that the run should not count and we should continue play with a tie. It was late and the next game was already behind schedule; so the parents of that team were anxious to start. One of their moms told some of our moms "just say you lost and go, so we can get started."

Our moms thought that was a very bad idea.

Perspective and personal investment shape our attitudes. I understand why someone else would say 'get it going' because they were going to be up late. I understand why we were more than willing to play longer, we wanted to win (and we were not going to be there as late as the other folks). We each had a different perspective. My son was due up next, perhaps he would have delivered and been the star. That is a motivation for me. It isn't for those other parents. So the world turns....

It is hard to really determine what is the right thing to do sometimes. If we had had the call go our way it is possible we would have taken another twenty minutes to finish our game, maybe more. There would have been many people who had to play later because their games are after ours. Some folks would say, "that's baseball," others would recall the many times we played late (or very early). Some would have no thought about how it impacted others. Some would be aware of it.

In the many conflicts in our world, within families and amongst people and nations, it is clear that our different perspectives really generate much of the problem. So do our different values and beliefs. I believe that battles are an inescapable part of life after "The Fall." Sin is real. So is evil. Even good people have evil in them.

We prefer to shout our slogans and project our feelings. Measured thinking and rational discussion, even debate, are too hard. Seeing other sides to an argument is too much work. In the end, in many cases, the discussion does not move anything along, we still disagree. Talking can not solve everything.

Easter is a reminder that Life has conquered Death. It is a timely reminder in this season of tornado tragedy. It is also a source of hope in the midst of worldwide crisis and destructive wars. Humans can not and will not solve the problems which tear us apart. We need to pray for the coming of the Lord. We need deliverance and we need salvation. We can try to be open, empathetic and respectful. We can try, but we will always fall short of perfect reconciliation. I think our efforts are worth it, but I also know there is need for Someone Else to save us. Some would say that the need itself is proof that He is: 'contingency' coupled with a deeply felt feeling that things can be different. How does this world produce such insights if this world is simply a machine?